Ali Wyne is a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation.
President Trump’s remarks in recent weeks — contending that fellow NATO members “owe [the United States] a tremendous amount of money,” labeling the European Union a trade “foe” and calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a good competitor,” for example — have heightened the anxiety of observers who question the resilience of the postwar order. Some focus on the challenges posed by external actors — whether the selective revisionism of China as a complex competitor-cum-partner or the more confrontational behavior of Russia, which appears to have calculated that it can accrue more short-term influence by destabilizing the system than by integrating into it.
Others are more concerned with internal stresses. Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy — which has surfaced and amplified long-percolating economic and demographic anxieties among a significant segment of the American public — articulates a sharp critique of the order’s alleged strategic benefits to the United States, its leading architect. Across the pond, meanwhile, increasingly powerful populist forces from a broad ideological spectrum are contesting the legitimacy of the European project.
While these various accounts go a long way in explaining the postwar order’s woes, they discount an important explanation: having thus far succeeded in achieving its foundational goal — averting a third world war — the postwar order lacks imperatives of comparable urgency to impel its modernization.
It is misleading to characterize the postwar era as a “long peace.” Proxy wars, civil wars and genocides have killed tens of millions over the past three-quarters of a century. Nor do observers agree why a war between great powers has not occurred during that time: they have offered explanations as diverse as “war aversion,” nuclear weapons, the U.S. alliance system and Enlightenment values.
Still, the headline accomplishment remains: no global conflagration has occurred under the auspices of the postwar order. However, this is not to suggest that the system is performing well; to the contrary, its limitations are widely understood and increasingly apparent. It is insufficiently responsive to and reflective of the evolving balance of power, which continues to shift eastward.
The current system too often fails to mobilize sustained collective action unless and until urgent challenges arise, and it is too slow to provide nimble, ad-hoc coalitions of subnational actors to address pressing challenges. While they readily acknowledge such defects, policymakers have thus far proven unable or unwilling to take bold corrective actions.
One can understand, if not excuse, the complacence: the postwar order, if not directly responsible for the absence of great-power war in recent decades, is at least associated with that outcome. In addition, even the most forceful advocates of its revitalization must bear in mind a distressing precedent: the principal efforts to introduce order, whether regional or global in scope, have resulted less from foresighted statecraft than from cataclysmic upheavals, as demonstrated by these major examples:
- The centrality of the nation-state to geopolitics emerged from the Peace of Westphalia, which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48). That conflict laid waste to vast stretches of Central Europe and resulted in the deaths of eight million people, including, it is estimated, a quarter or more of all Germans. Some historians estimate that it took upwards of a century for Germany to regain its prewar population.
- The imperative of maintaining a balance of power gained greater salience with the Congress of Vienna, which emerged in the aftermath of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815). Those 23 years of bloodshed did more than leave some seven million dead. “In a development without precedent,” explains David Bell, a historian of early modern France, “the wars brought about significant alterations in the territory or the political system of every single European state.”
- The League of Nations, a noble yet short-lived experiment in circumscribing great-power competition, emerged from World War I, a conflict that destroyed three empires and left some 20 million dead. So encompassing was the carnage it wrought, notes political scientist Graham Allison, that historians had to coin the term “world war” to capture its scale.
- Finally, the postwar order emerged from World War II (1939-45), which left roughly 65 million dead, destroyed much of Europe and Asia and displaced some 40 million Europeans. One of the preeminent historians of World War I, Margaret MacMillan, observes that “it had been possible to contemplate going back to business as usual” after that conflict. “However, 1945 was different, so different that it has been called Year Zero.”
All four of these calamities, however, occurred before the advent of nuclear weapons. Any confrontation today that could pave the way for a truly new order, grounded in contemporary conditions and needs, could involve nuclear-armed powers. The horror of that outcome is sufficiently difficult to comprehend that most observers continue to place their faith in Cold War-era measures for maintaining strategic stability — even though, arms control expert Benoît Pelopidas reminds us: “The nuclear peace is not a fact” but a hypothesis.
Great-power conflict, while still a low-probability outcome, figures more prominently in conversations among policymakers now than it did at the turn of the century. The Pentagon’s new defense strategy, for example, contends that “[i]nterstate strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security.” Moreover, political scientists Keir Lieber and Daryl Press explain, rapid advances in delivery systems and remote sensing are “eroding the foundation of nuclear deterrence.”
Still, we should be grateful that the trend toward pacification continues to hold at the highest level. A recent study by the RAND Corporation concludes that “deadly political conflict has been gradually declining, and anticipated trends in the major drivers of war and peace suggest that such conflict is likely to continue to decline over the next couple of decades.”
The modernization of the world order would ideally result from farsighted diplomacy. It is more likely, though, that policymakers will do little more than push for incremental improvements to an inadequate system, thereby enabling the aforementioned forces — ranging from external challenges to populist uprisings — to continue testing its foundations. The potential result of indefinite erosion — a vacuum in order, without a coherent alternative to replace it — is unpalatable. In a nuclear age, though, it is terrifying to consider what might have to occur for a new order to emerge.